Saturday, January 19, 2013

Of Earl Weaver, and the one time I broke The Rule

Earl Weaver, the legendary, colorful, and profanity-packed manager of the Baltimore Orioles, passed away today. I’ve been an on-again, off-again sportswriter for 25 years, and The Weave’s passing brought to mind the only time I ever had a meaningful encounter with him.

Weaver retired from managing in 1986, and I started in the biz in ’88. So the first time I had occasion to meet him was at an old-timers banquet, circa 1995. Now one thing you should know about being a baseball writer…

There are many unwritten rules: Dress business casual or so. You can hang around the batting cage and in the dugout to talk to players before a game, but don’t go to the bullpen. When a team is sad after a loss, you are sad after a loss. Your questions need to be delivered in hushed tones, reverent of the fact that the Local Nine just took an L.

And there’s one written rule. Honestly, it’s very often right there on the credential hanging around your neck on a lanyard. It’s usually in all caps, bold, italic. Sometimes all three: NO AUTOGRAPHS

It’s not so much a matter of practical concern. No one’s really afraid that the beat guy from the Tacoma Tribune is gonna start a cottage industry selling Raul Ibanez-signed baseball cards. It’s more a matter of professionalism. You’re there to do a job. You’re a professional, not some fannish wannabe. Dude, if you actually ask someone for an autograph, you just knocked yourself off equal footing with them, and skewed the power relationship in their favor. And you’re now officially a dick.

And so it came to pass that as I got the invite and was scanning the list of who was going to be at the old-timer’s banquet in question, I came across the name…Earl Weaver. I worked with a friend at the time who was an Orioles fan through and through. A “cut me and I bleed orange and black” kinda guy. I figured it would be a nice gesture on my part, and something my pal would appreciate, if I could procure a ball signed by The Weave. So that became my mission.

The event was at the Chemical Bank headquarters at 277 Park Avenue in New York City. Upstairs on the it-musta-been-48th floor, Chemical had a swanky-ass banquet room—panoramic views of Manhattan, crystal chandeliers, the whole nine. Tom Seaver, the longtime Mets pitching great, was a pitchman for Chemical at the time, so the whole event was centered around Tom Terrific. But my sights were on The Weave.

At these things, the cocktail hour runs two hours, followed by dinner (with drinks), then the scheduled-cocktail-two-hours, which actually runs four. Unless you have the liver of Hercules or you’re a practicing Friend of Bill W., you can easily wind up a puddle by the end of the night. Trust me—I’ve been a blissful soupy mess at the end of a couple of these.

And so, toward the end of the night, I locked in on my target. The Weave was in a corner—literally. He was so drunk, the only way he could stand up was with the support of not one, but two walls. He planted himself in the safe embrace of a 90-degree angle to prop himself up, but was potted enough that he had started to slide downward. By the time I got to him, he was in a half-crouch. He looked like Elrod Hendricks.

I ambled up. The Weave had a vodka tonic in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and a drunken grin on his face. In my best I’m-only-five-whiskey-sours-into-the-night tone, I rapid-fired, “Excuse me, Mister Weaver. I know it’s a bit out of the ordinary, but I’ve got a friend who’s a huge Orioles fan…”

I cast a quick glance over my shoulder as I reached a hand into my suit pocket to grab the baseball that had been there all night alongside a ballpoint pen.

“I know he’d really appreciate it if you’d be so kind to as to sign this ball for him.”

The Weave blinked once, trying to focus. And he invoked the name of the Orioles’ former owner, a man he had famously squabbled with over contract terms and money at the end of his career. “Oh, yeah?” he slurred. “What’s your friend’s name? Edward Bennett Williams?”

I laughed, amazed at The Weave’s witty retort, even through his vodka haze. “No,” I said. “Actually, it’s Scott.”

“Well in that case,” he said, “no problem.”

He flashed a perfect, looping “Earl Weaver” across the horsehide. “Thanks much,” I said. “Can I get you a drink?”

“Nah,” he said. “This round’s on me. Then again, the drinks are free, right?”

I only broke The Rule one time. I’m happy it was with Earl Weaver.

—Jim McLauchlin

1 comment:

  1. great stuff! and now we have to deal with stan the man's passing too....